Are you chronically online?
Two weeks ago, I had never heard of this term and now it’s everywhere. What does it mean and do you have it?
I’ll be honest. I’m writing this on a Sunday. I should be resting but instead, I’m writing this. Most of the time, I ignore my work thoughts on the weekend but I’ve had a dry spell of ideas for Substack and being too experienced an author, I know if you don’t write something down, usually it’s long forgotten by the time Monday rolls around.
So is this a symptom of me being chronically online?
Well, first up, we all know I hate diagnoses, they are too black and white. I don’t believe you are either chronically online or not. It’s not that finite. I don’t think they are inherent traits delivered at birth or some personality you develop. I believe every human is capable of going through phases of being chronically online and then, phases where they have a better relationship with the online world and the internet. As with most things, it’s a sliding scale and without conscious action to do otherwise, the natural tendency is to spend more time online than we should. Why? Because the creators of social media and smartphones, create things that make it addictive and keep us online and hooked in. We already learned this from The Social Dilemma and if you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend you do. If you don’t, the top line I took away from it is that many people who work in social media and create the addictiveness of the devices as part of their job, don’t allow their own children to go on the apps they have created. They know the most about the apps and devices, and therefore they know the danger of it.
Every time, I have seen this phrase online, it is used in a derogatory way to imply they are living too much in the internet bubble but I think if people were honest, it has happened to all of us. I remember one moment in my own life when I recalled a wedding and realised the memory I was actually thinking of was the video I took, not of the actual memory. I’ve had periods of time where I’ve been unable to pull myself away from my phone, refreshing comments and worrying about what people are saying online and in the pandemic, my screen time often surpassed 10 hours.
Even if you aren’t a creator of a social media app, or a smartphone, being a creator of content (like myself), you feel the effects of it too. Most influencers are likely chronic online, we joke about how a workout didn’t happen unless it was tracked or documented by a sweaty selfie but having lived in this influencer world, it’s closer to the truth than not. As an influencer myself, I know if I am not conscious of it, it’s easier to now be online than offline. Being offline takes conscious effort and it often actually takes work to switch my brain off and stop turning every thought I think into content. It’s sad, but what I think is sadder is the constant pressure to always be both creating and consuming, and even in other jobs, it’s the constant accessibility leading to endless working hours that have no end. And it’s not a coincidence.
I know that being chronically online and being chronically overworked are more related than not, whether you are an influencer or not. When I am stressed, I go into my phone more to numb myself from the outside world. I am more likely to doom-scroll or cycle through the apps, not really sure what I’m looking for.
Twitter. Instagram. TikTok. Substack. Twitter. Instagram. TikTok. Substack. Open. Scroll. Shut. Open. Scroll. Shut. You get the gist.
Our phones are a way to numb. In the same way that people use alcohol or shopping or indeed, overworking. When you are glued to your phone, it’s an escape from thinking, in the same way, that other things can provide relief.
When I go through a particularly busy period, my brain gets used to the stress and the constant activity and engagement and therefore it reaches for things like social media that will keep my mind as alert as it previously was because when you are stressed, your brain and your body is too and therefore it clocks to stay on high alert. It is the flight or fight response but instead of a tiger attacking you, it is staying alert for attacks online. So when I’m doing this cycle of opening and shutting apps, I do my best to notice as soon as possible.
And then you have to actively disengage.
You then go through a comedown. Your brain might tell you things to get you to reengage, to chase the validation and you must actively ignore it all and pull yourself away in order to return your body and brain to a state of calm.
I have had to actively pull myself away from the endless cycling of apps because I find it hard to return to my state of calm because my brain’s default is wanting to continue on the high-intensity busyness and constant engagement and interaction. Most times, the only resolution is to take a full digital detox, put my phone on airplane mode and put it in another room. Since it is easier to be online than not, I really have to make it as inconvenient as possible to reach my phone in order to break the cycle. All of this has made me think, we are still looking at the effect, rather than the cause.
Why do we want to escape from the world so often? Why do we want a brief respite where we can silence our brain and numb out? We can label people as ‘chronically online’ or we could actually look underneath and ask why so many feel unsafe in the real world. And that’s where I come full circle, because if you happen to live in a home where you are unsafe or in a body that makes it hard to exist as you are without being shamed in public, then social media and the escape that it provides is also able to provide you with both comfort and community. It is preventing the most isolated among us from still having companionship in some form. Whether it’s hard to leave your house because of chronic illness, or when we were all forbidden to due to the pandemic, it gave us connection when we weren’t allowed to be in person.
When we demonise social media or our phones, it ignores this part of social media and therefore the solution is not to stick it into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ box but instead to understand the nuance. We need to recognise we can all use it positively for companionship and community and we can also use it to worsen our mental health with notifications that are aggravating our nervous system with every alert or even something as simple as the comparison that occurs online.
Ultimately, if someone spends more time online than they should, my first response is compassion because I know from my own life, the times when being online was most appealing was when I was loneliest in the real world. I spent so much time online because my real life didn’t have enough meaning. Now that my real life is full of connection, intimacy and love, being online is not as appealing because I have a whole life outside of social media. But at the time, it helped me survive. When I was struggling with my body image, it gave me company and the understanding I wasn’t alone. When I was in three lockdowns alone, it gave me an escape from the voice inside my head and when I was going through PTSD and the world was too scary a place, social media meant I didn’t feel so isolated.
In terms of the term ‘chronically online’, it needs to go. It oversimplifies a very complicated issue. If you worry you are spending too much time online, you need to take conscious steps to not let all of this suck you in. If you are the one throwing this accusation, you need to look internally because you are not so immune from suffering from the same thing.
Lots of love,
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below